The Roux Scholarship is the most coveted among young chefs in the UK. As previous winner Daniel Cox starts as head chef at Michel‘s new restaurant, we look at how this prestigious competition is opening doors for some of the best new talents in the culinary world.
Chaired by Michel’s father Albert Roux and his uncle Michel Roux, the Roux Scholarship has worldwide acclaim, offering unparallelled guidance and advice to ambitious chefs. Now in its 27th year, it is far more than just a competition, presenting the winner with an unrivalled opportunity to realise their ambitions. Michel has been part of the judging panel for nearly seven years and relishes his involvement: “The scholarship is very dear to my heart. It gives the chance for chefs to shine and become a Roux scholar for their whole life, they become almost part of the family.”
Unsurprisingly with such high stakes the pressure is very real, with competitors expected to perfect complex classics from the Escoffier era without any opportunities for second chances. Each year a theme is set and entrants send in an appropriate recipe to get through to the regional heats. The successful candidates then cook their recipes, which are tasted by the judging panel without knowing who prepared each one. In the finals, the six remaining contestants must cook a classic dish with just an hour to prepare beforehand.
Michel, his father Albert, uncle Michel and cousin Alain are joined on the judging panel by chefs Brian Turner, Heston Blumenthal, Gary Rhodes, David Nicholls, Andrew Fairlie and a visiting chef. Organisation, hygiene and culinary ability are just a few of the key aspects the professionals scrutinise over when judging each of the young chefs.
To a budding chef the rewards for winning the Roux Scholarship are inestimable; the winner receives a financial prize and three-month’s work in any three-star Michelin restaurant they choose. They also get help and advice from the Roux family and judges for the rest of their career. Past participants have travelled the globe as ambassadors of culinary excellence. The 2009 winner, Hrishikesh Desai, is now head chef at The Brasserie at the Lucknam Park Hotel in Bath, and has begun his three-month training at The French Laundry in California with renowned American chef and award-winning restaurateur, Thomas Keller. Hrishikesh also had the opportunity to design three dishes served on first-class British Airways flights to India from December to February.
The 2008 winner, Daniel Cox, has worked under Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck in Bray, at Per Se in New York and has completed his three-month training at El Raco de Can Fabes in Catalonia. He has now taken the position of head chef at Michel’s new restaurant, Roux at Parliament Square. We talked to Daniel to find out how winning the scholarship has changed his life.
WHERE DID YOUR LOVE OF COOKING STEM FROM?
I have always loved food and been interested in cooking. I first started as a child in Wales, making Welsh cakes with my grandmother.
WHICH CHEFS DID YOU LOOK UP TO?
I admired the late Keith Floyd when I was a lot younger – I was seriously inspired by him – and then the Roux brothers.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO ENTER THE ROUX SCHOLARSHIP?
I started working for a guy called Roger Naylor who was the group executive chef for Roux Fine Dining and spent quite a few years at Le Gavroche – he was a very good chef. When the scholarship came up he really wanted me to enter it, but I was too young at the time. Then, sadly, he passed away. The following year I was old enough to enter and went for it. The first two times I entered I didn’t get through, but it was too incredible an opportunity to give up.
WHAT WERE THE COMPETITION PROCESSES YOU WENT THROUGH?
First off I had to submit an original recipe and get through to the regional heats to cook it and get a mystery box to prepare a dessert from. Then it was whittled down to around 20 people and I did a ‘cook off’ to get through to the finals. In my first two goes at the scholarship I didn’t actually get in to the finals. In the year I won, the final dish to cook was lemon sole – I decided to fillet it and then put it back together. I filled the fish up with a mousse made from all the trimmings and some langoustines and used a protein-binding natural enzyme called Activia to basically stick the fish back together and make it look whole again. Then I poached it. The first two years I entered I did quite modern dishes, but that year I went really traditional, as it would have been served in days gone by in the French-service style.
WHAT MADE YOU CHOOSE TO WORK AT EL RACO DE CAN FABES WHEN YOU WON?
When you win the scholarship you are asked which restaurant you want to go to and now you can choose anywhere in the world, but when I did it, it was anywhere in Europe. I have always been interested in Spain and wanted to see more of a Spanish kitchen at that level so suggested El Bulli, but I was advised that it was a bit too crazy there. Instead the scholarship put me in touch with Santi Santamaria at Can Fabes, who’s more grounded and a lot more traditional really, serving Catalan cuisine. It was an amazing experience; just being over there was fantastic – it is a different way of life.
AFTER CAN FABES, YOU SPENT TIME WORKING UNDER HESTON BLUMENTHAL AT THE FAT DUCK. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
Brilliant. Heston takes a lot of interest in the scholars so when I met him at the 2009 Scholar- ship I asked if I could work at his restaurant. I was only there for two weeks but he made sure I was doing something different every day. I also spent some time with him in the lab; his cooking isn’t actually that experimental, it is just very well researched and well practiced. There is nothing that mad going on at The Fat Duck, it’s all misconceptions really – it is quite a traditional kitchen. That was probably the best time I have ever had in a kitchen. There is a big family atmosphere and everyone treats each other and the work with great respect.
HOW DID IT COMPARE WITH YOUR EXPERIENCE AT PER SE IN NEW YORK?
One of the prizes of the Roux Scholarship was to go to New York on holiday, so it was a great opportunity to arrange work experience at Per Se. They completely change the two menus – a tasting menu and a vegetarian tasting menu – every day, which is pretty extreme. I was put on a special spot near the pass watching the whole service, which was great. At the end of the week I went back on the Saturday and sat down to eat in the restaurant. Normally a tasting menu is nine courses but they gave me 26 – that was probably the best dining experience I have ever had.
DID WINNING THE SCHOLARSHIP OPEN DOORS FOR YOU?
Absolutely. Winning allowed me to apply to work at the best restaurants around the world without going in completely unknown. The scholarship is so respected and highly sought after that it means a lot to have it behind you. I wouldn’t be opening Roux at Parliament Square’s doors if I hadn’t won.
DO YOU THINK YOUR COOKING HAS EVOLVED SINCE WINNING?
I would say so. The level hasn’t necessarily changed but in terms of simplicity it has. You don’t know what three-Michelin star food is like until you experience it and work with it, you’re sort of guessing and trying too hard to over-complicate things. Even The Fat Duck is extremely simple, though the technique behind it is very complex. That’s probably the main thing I learnt – to strip back dishes and make sure the products come from the best possible produce available to maximise the flavour and texture.
WHEN DID YOU FIND OUT YOU WERE GOING TO BE HEAD CHEF AT ROUX AT PARLIAMENT SQUARE?
When I was in Spain at Can Fabes the Restaurant Associates phoned me saying can you come back early because we have got an opportunity we would like you to look at. They knew I had a relationship with Michel already, and we just blew them away with the food.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE?
I am focusing on the new restaurant. I will be working six days a week, every second of every day! We have the restaurant with 56 covers and are also offering bar food, banqueting and a small deli restaurant for the RICS staff. So I am going to be extremely busy. I can’t wait!